Nov. 19, 2007

Words from the Front

by Ron Padgett

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Poem: "Words from the Front" by Ron Padgett, from How to Be Perfect. © Coffee House Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Words from the Front

We don't look as young
as we used to
except in dim light
especially in
the soft warmth of candlelight
when we say
in all sincerity
You're so cute
You're my cutie.
two old people
behaving like this.
It's enough
to make you happy.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of poet and novelist Allen Tate, (books by this author) born in Winchester, Kentucky (1899), who believed that Southern culture was being corrupted by Northern industrialism, but he didn't make his name as a poet until he moved to the North himself. He got fired from a true stories magazine for correcting his boss's grammar, so he rented a farmhouse in upstate New York and wrote his best-known poem, "Ode to the Confederate Dead" (1928), about standing at the gate of a cemetery and feeling cut off from the past. He went on to write the biographies Stonewall Jackson (1928) and Jefferson Davis (1929), and his novel The Fathers (1938). His Collected Poems came out in 1977.

It's the birthday of the poet Sharon Olds, (books by this author) born in San Francisco (1942), who didn't publish her first book of poems, Satan Says (1980), until she was 37 years old. She said, "I was a late bloomer. But anyone who blooms at all, ever, is very lucky. ...Many lives don't allow that, the good fortune of being able to work at it, and try, and keep trying."

Olds one of the few modern poets who actually sells thousands of copies of her books, in part because she writes about the family lives and love lives of ordinary women in her collections The Dead and the Living (1984), The Father (1992), and Blood, Tin, Straw (1999). Most readers assume she is writing about her own life, but early in her career, Olds made a vow that she would never talk about her personal life in public, and she refuses to say whether or not her poems are autobiographical.

She also tries not to watch any television or read any newspapers, because she just doesn't have time. To stay informed about the world, she looks at the front page of newspapers when she walks past newsstands, and she asks her friends to brief her on world affairs. She said, "It might be a bad thing, not to know what's going on in the world. I can't say I really approve of it ...[I just don't like] learning about so many things that we can't do anything about." Her collection Strike Sparks came out in 2004.

It was on this day in 1863 that President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address at the dedication of a new cemetery to honor the 23,000 Union soldiers and 20,000 Confederates who had been newly reburied months after the battle. The organizers had invited the most popular poets of the day to write something in honor of the occasion, but Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, and William Cullen Bryant all declined. So the keynote speaker was Edward Everett, known for his speeches about battlefields. Lincoln was invited only as an afterthought, but he hoped to use the occasion to explain why he thought this horrific war was still worth fighting.

About 15,000 people showed up that day, and the festivities began with a military band. A local preacher offered a long prayer, and then Edward Everett stood up and spoke for over two hours, describing the Battle of Gettysburg in great detail, and he brought the audience to tears more than once.

When Everett was finished, Lincoln got up, and pulled his speech from his coat pocket. It consisted of only 10 sentences, just 272 words, did not mention any of the specifics of the war or any of the details of the battle, did not mention the North or the South, and did not mention slavery. What he said was that our nation was founded on the idea of equality, and the war was being fought over that idea. And he ended by saying, "It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

The audience was distracted by a photographer setting up his camera, and by the time Lincoln had finished his speech and sat down, many people in the audience didn't even realize he had spoken. But Edward Everett later told the president, "I wish that I could flatter myself that I had come as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes."

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